She’s one of the top executives in Canadian sport, but Own the Podium CEO Anne Merklinger is no stranger to the swimming pool.
An elite athlete for most of her life, Merklinger was a member of Canada’s national swim team from 1977 to 1981. Her accomplishments include a silver medal at the 1979 World University Games in the 200-metre breaststroke.
Swimming Canada recently caught up with Merklinger to discuss the tough decisions facing swimming and all sports as we compete to be the best in the world. Sometimes being the best in Canada just isn’t enough in today’s ultra-competitive global sport environment. Merklinger believes Canada will be better off in the long run by raising the bar and Own the Podium is leading that charge.
In Part Two of this three-part series, Merklinger touches on Canada’s goals for 2016 and beyond, the role of selection criteria in getting us there, and the biggest challenges she has seen.
SC: How are selection criteria evolving?
AM: Some sports are able to make the cultural shift more easily. We expect sports to be microcosms of OTP. We expect them to target resources on athletes who are going to win more medals for Canada, and they should become more targeted as we get closer to Games.
We are looking at some sports and saying, “You’re clearly no longer tracking for a podium performance for Rio, but perhaps you have a group of emerging athletes for 2020.” In that case we would expect sports, in fact require sports, to shift resource allocations to athletes tracking for a podium performance in 2020.
These are very challenging decisions for sports. It requires sports to raise the selection criteria bar and we are pushing them to do that. What that means for some sports is, that while an athlete may be the best Canadian in a particular event, if they are not tracking for podium performance in 2016 or 2020, then OTP would expect that sport to revisit the provision of incremental resources for those athletes that are on track for a podium result. , We are asking sports to say, in order for an athlete to receive significant resources on behalf of the funding partners, they need to be tracking for podium performance whether they’re the best Canadian or not.
SC:What is your biggest challenge?
AM: The biggest challenge is that shift in mentality. It requires the national sport organizations to decide whether they want to be in the medal-winning business. Are they in the business of excellence in high-performance sport at the international level? That’s the key question.
We then challenge the sports. If your objective in 2020 is to win X number of medals, what are the performance gaps right now? What’s the athlete pool? What’s the evidence of the abilities of that athlete pool now? What is the gap between their current performance and podium performance in 2020? What are the strategies to close those gaps?
We’re no longer in the business of trying to be all things to all people. The global environment at the Olympic and Paralympic Games is getting tougher and tougher. Given our resource base in Canada, it requires sports and OTP to make very difficult decisions around where support is going to be invested.
We are sitting around the table every year with swimming and reviewing the athlete pool one by one, and team by team if it’s a relay. We challenge Swimming Canada on a regular basis. If, in our view, an athlete doesn’t appear to be tracking for podium performance, why are incremental resources being spent on this athlete?
SC: Can you explain a bit more about “podium pathways” and “gold medal profiles”?
AM: The podium pathway is the performance progression for an athlete. It is sport-specific, event-specific performance progression that ultimately leads to a podium performance. In swimming you can track that pretty clearly. You can predict based on data analysis the progression of times at the world level in 100-metre freestyle. One could, within a margin of error, identify what time is required for someone to be on the podium in the men’s 100-m freestyle. We can do that now eight years out. That’s the podium pathway. We are requiring sports to have identified that in every event in which they have podium potential: eight years out, seven years out, six years out and so on.
The gold medal profile is all the characteristics that a future Olympic or Paralympic champion is exhibiting in a particular event. They might be anatomical, psychological, physiological, technical, tactical, etc. – every performance component of what an Olympic or Paralympic champion looks like. It’s a challenging piece of work because we have to predict how things are going to change over the course of time. Swimming has the advantage of having one of the best distance swimmers in the world, so Swimming Canada can look at Ryan Cochrane and say, “These are the characteristics of Ryan in every instance.” Ryan has also yet to win a gold medal, so what’s the performance gap between Ryan and a gold medallist?
SC:What are the medal objectives for the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics in Rio?
AM: Our performance objective is to win more medals than we won in London and we won 18 in London. The majority of the medals come from what we call Category 1 and Category 2 sports, of which swimming is a Category 1 sport; so about 80 per cent of the investment is on Category 1 and Category 2 sports.
Category 1 sports are those identified to win multiple medals. They’re at the top of the list in terms of our focus and concentration.
In the Paralympic environment, London was very much an eye-opener for everyone in terms of our performance. We’re in the midst of identifying the performance objectives for Rio in the Paralympic Games.